Thanks to a brilliant closing round, Tim Clark finally picked up his first PGA Tour win, but this Players will be remembered for the class he showed in victory and the travails of the game's biggest stars
The old man went by the boy's house early on Saturday morning. They drove down Ponte Vedra Boulevard. In the gaps between the houses, they could glimpse the flat sea.
"Today the scores will be low," the old man said. "There is no wind."
"They should have wind machines," the boy said. He spun his finger around. "I'd fire them suckers up!"
They approached the Sawgrass development. A mechanical arm went up and down, up and down.
"I want to see Rory!" the boy said. He was young, and impetuous. The boy's parents had hired the old man to teach the boy about life. He took the job, but he would not take the money.
"There is time," the old man said. He had caught many great fish and seen many great championships.
Rory had not made the cut. Phil and Tiger had, both at 141.
The air was still and the greens were soft and the course could be had. The old man and the boy watched Phil bogey the last for 66. Phil was signing autographs as Tiger walked by.
"Hey, Tiger," the boy yelled. "Say so long to that Number 1 ranking—kiss it goodbye!"
The old man's face went white.
Phil, the No. 2 player in the world, had just given an autograph to the boy. He looked at the boy and said, "Be polite."
Tiger walked into the scorer's room and signed for 71.
The old man and the boy left the course in silence.
In the truck the boy asked, "How come Westwood licks his lips so much?" Lee Westwood was leading the tournament.
"Because he wears white pants," the old man said.
The boy did not understand. He put on his earphones.
The next day was Mother's Day. The old man and the boy returned to the course.
The old man pointed to the ocean, choppy and angry. "Today the scores will be high," he said.
Then he told the boy, "Today we will follow Tiger. It will be your apology."
The greens were turning into khaki rugs in the hot Sunday sun. Tiger was playing with Jason Bohn. The two men talked about the course. It was firm and fast, and they were pleased. The boy could hear them, and the old man could read their lips.
Woods made a bogey on the 3rd and another on the 5th. On the 7th hole, he said to Bohn, "I'm done."
Bohn asked, "Is it your wrist?"
"No," Tiger said. "It's my neck."
As they shook hands, the world No. 1—who had won a U.S. Open with a stress fracture of his left leg—flinched.
"Is that for real?" the boy said.
The old man said, "A man's word is his bond."
They watched Phil warm up. They saw him smash a dozen or so drivers on the range and then walk, with his teacher, to the short-game area, where he hit a series of beautiful pitch shots. It pleased the old man, to see Phil change gears so quickly. The teacher had his arm on Phil's shoulder.
The old man pointed at the teacher and said, "That is Claude Harmon Jr."
"Huh?" said the boy.
The old man thought of the swings Tiger made in 2000, before the boy was born. He thought Tiger was close to perfect then, when Claude Harmon Jr. was his teacher.
"Oh, you mean Butchy," the boy said.
Phil needed a fast start. He made a par at the 1st. The old man and the boy walked to the 2nd tee.
"He'll birdie here," the boy said. "Phil feasts on the 5s!"
The old man, who did not like alliteration, had seen many men make 6 on the 2nd at Augusta National, also a par-5, looking for a 4 to get in contention on Masters Sunday.
When Phil tried to reach the 2nd with an eight-iron from 200 yards, the old man gasped. The ball fell short. Ah, the old man thought, the trusted wedge will come out. But Phil's pitch from a bad lie was the shot of a duffer. Phil made 6 when he was thinking 4, if not 3.
They stayed with Phil, right through his closing bogey, for 74. Still, he signed autographs.
The old man and the boy headed out again. They were looking for Westwood.
"He is a good man with hard luck," the old man said. He was thinking of the Masters this year, the British Open last year, the U.S. Open the year before that. Westwood might have won all three.
"Westwood?" the boy asked. "He plays for them." By that he meant the European Ryder Cup team. "Buy American, old man!"
The boy read other names off the leader board. "Lucas Glover! Heath Slocum! Davis Love III!" Three Southern gents. The boy started singing, Sweet home, Alabama.
The old man had spent his life at sea, fishing with crews from foreign ports. His working eye went to other names: Westwood, from England; Tim Clark, from South Africa; Robert Allenby, from New Zealand; Francisco Molinari, from Italy; Fredrik Jacobson, from Sweden.
"Let us see if Lee Westwood is selling ice cream today," the old man said.
"The white pants," the boy said. "Good one, old man."
They were starting to understand each other.
When Westwood made a bogey on 14, the boy said, "That's a shame."
They started to follow Clark. "I'm taller than that guy," the boy said.
"No," the old man said. "He is a short man with a long putter and a big heart."
"How do you know that?" the boy asked.
"Ken Schoefield said it on Golf Channel," the old man said.
They watched Clark play the final two holes. The 17th green is surrounded by a pond, and the left side of the 18th hole is lined by water.
He made no mistakes over those final two holes and, with a bogey-free 67, won by a shot over Allenby.
"He had never won on Tour," the old man said. "Two hundred and five events."
The boy stood by a rope as Clark walked past. Other kids put out their hands for high fives, but the boy did not. He clapped, slowly and rhythmically. Clark tipped his hat toward him.
The boy said to the old man, "He is a great champion, no?"
Suddenly, the old man realized, the boy was talking like him. "Did you hear him speak of Allenby? Of Westwood?" the old man asked. "In his moment of triumph, he thought of others. That is a mark of greatness."
On the drive home, the boy asked, "What did you mean when you said a man's word is his bond?"
The old man said nothing.
The boy asked, "When did Tiger hurt his neck?"
The old man said nothing.
"Tiger said his private life was boring," the boy said. "And it was not. He said he was fine physically. And he was not. I should not have heckled him. But I ask you this, old man: Is Tiger a great champion?"
The old man stopped the truck in the boy's driveway. He looked at the boy and said, "If you care about Tiger, give him time."
Then the old man stared straight ahead and asked, "Do you care about him?"
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They stayed with Phil, right through his closing bogey. Still, he signed autographs.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
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